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Nieman Journalism Lab
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“Blood libel”: How language evolves and spreads within online worlds

When Sarah Palin used the term “blood libel” to describe purported attacks on her and the Tea Party movement in the wake of Saturday’s tragic shooting in Tucson, some were left wondering why the former governor would use a phrase historically associated with anti-Semitism.

But, whatever the merits or demerits of Palin’s usage, it didn’t come out of nowhere. And that alone is a useful reminder that the Internet’s a big, diverse place, stocked with ecosystems, subcultures, and communities that each bring their own assumptions about language. For journalists (or anyone), it can be easy to think that your little corner of the Internet is representative of the big picture. It’s probably not.

The use of “blood libel” may seem inexplicable — that is, until you go back and look at how the word was used in particular digital media circles during the days since the Tucson shooting. The Lab has written previously about Internet memes, how ideas tend to move more like heartbeats than viruses through the web’s extremities. And the path “blood libel” took — while, on the one hand, it suggests the social divisions that can live online — also offers some insight into the trip memes take as they bubble up into the consciousness of the mass media.

With a bit of Google News sleuthing, supplemented by a trip to the Lexis-Nexis archive, it appears that the term “blood libel,” pre-Palin, was adopted by some conservative commentators in the immediate aftermath of the Tucson assassination attempt.

The first use of the phrase I uncovered came on January 9, one day after the shooting, on the website Renew America. As conservative activist Adam Graham put it: “When someone on the left says that the Tea Party movement is responsible for the shooting in Tucson, they are leveling the political equivalent of a blood libel that blames an entire political movement for the actions of a person who in all likelihood had no connection to the movement.” Note that Graham links to the Wikipedia page on “blood libel,” demonstrating knowledge of the traditional meaning of the term.

The term really sprang into use, however, when conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) used it in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Jan. 10. Headlined online as “The Arizona Tragedy and the Politics of Blood Libel,” the piece asked: “So as the usual talking heads begin their ‘have you no decency?’ routine aimed at talk radio and Republican politicians, perhaps we should turn the question around. Where is the decency in blood libel?”

In the days after that piece appeared, more conservative bloggers picked up “blood libel” — and it was further amplified when commentators of a variety of political stripes used the phrase in their discussion of the Reynolds op-ed. Both Reason Online and Associated Content quoted Reynolds’ use of  the term “blood libel” in their broader discussion of political rhetoric and violence. I also found “blood libel” used, without reference to Reynolds, in Human Events, The Washington Examiner, and Big Journalism (in the comment section).

The surest sign that the “blood libel” meme had caught on, though, came when it started to be used in major media comment sections like those of the Washington Post. Ordinary website readers were now referencing the term.

And then came Palin. And here we are.

None of that is a scientific analysis, of course. And as helpful as digital tracking tools like Google and Nexis can be, the fact that “blood libel” was lurking in the web’s shadows in the first place, ready to emerge almost fully formed, suggests the unknowability of the web — its anonymity, its opacity — as much as its readability.

Still, the general path “blood libel” took over the past few days shines some light on how particular terms move within the digital media ecosystem, and how the use of language that seems strange to many — as it did to many commentators, judging on their reactions to it — can appear “normal” to others who are operating within a different discursive community. That’s not to make another lamentation of “cyber-balkanization” or another call for the return of the “mass public sphere” where everyone read and thought the same thing. It is just a reminder, though, that our digital house has many rooms. Sometimes, when you feel like politicians aren’t speaking to you, you’re right. They’re not.

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  • Mark Casper

    Alan Dershowitz, no right-wing sympathizer, on Palin’s use of the term “blood libel”:

    “The term “blood libel” has taken on a broad metaphorical meaning in public discourse. Although its historical origins were in theologically based false accusations against the Jews and the Jewish People, its current usage is far broader. I myself have used it to describe false accusations against the State of Israel by the Goldstone Report. There is nothing improper and certainly nothing anti-Semitic in Sarah Palin using the term to characterize what she reasonably believes are false accusations that her words or images may have caused a mentally disturbed individual to kill and maim. The fact that two of the victims are Jewish is utterly irrelevant to the propriety of using this widely used term.”

    That should settle it, but probably won’t.

  • Al Dole

    How should that settle it? Dershowitz is a lawyer and gave a very lawyerly response.

    The question is what do Palin and the conservative blefuscudians mean when they use such a loaded phrase? Are they claiming that they are being charge with human sacrifice for ritual purpose? Are they claiming that they are persecuted? Are they implying that no blood has been spilled and they’re threatening language towards other with whom they disagree is in no way connected with violence against those people?
    Its a typical Palin malady of stepping into the social chaos to further arouse her feelings of persecution.

  • Rod Paul

    Keep in mind, too, that several of the earliest users of the term were members or hangers-on of the DiggPatriots, the group that worked at down-ranking anything they deemed ‘liberal’ on Digg while promoting their specific agendas.

    This may not be formally organized – but it is organized.

  • Josh Braun

    I like this analysis a lot. In my dissertation, I use the term “epistemic interoperability” to think about some of these issues—the notion that different “discursive communities” are selectively inter-permeable. Ideas and assumptions move more easily between some than others, in a manner analogous, but not identical to technological interoperability, in which some devices and software work together selectively.

    If you’ve ever tried to convert a stubborn filetype generated by one program to one usable by another application and had to go through several steps, or even use several programs to make the conversion, you have an idea of what I’m talking about. Of course, data and discourses aren’t the same thing—there are lots of additional constructs out there, like trading zones and boundary objects [PDF], that help us to better understand the latter.

    The most interesting thing to me, though, is how epistemic and architectural interoperability work in tandem to shape our exposure to and experience of new content and ideas—and the manner in which this process is “engineered” on both fronts by institutions and discussants.

    Anyhow, I’ve run on. Suffice to say it’ll all be in a readable form by this summer. The embryonic and somewhat abstract version is here for anyone who’s interested.

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  • Brandt

    Way to go Sarah by stoking the fire even more with an anti-semitic remark. Instead of smiling and nodding while talking about murders and national tragedies, try having some humility. I was compelled to create a visual commentary of her political rhetoric and its effects on my artist’s blog at Drop by and let me know what you think.

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  • dan

    Fascinating stuff. Seems like language is evolving more quickly than ever.

  • art

    How sad that so few understand the general context of her phrasing. If people continue to get their news from places like Huffington then we will continue the dumbing down of America.

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  • Mark Hugh Miller

    Aside from the erudite discussions preceding, I suspect Palin’s writer(s) either made the gaffe or intentionally used the phrase. To expect that this culturally illiterate self-promoting opportunist, whose mind and ego seem stuck in adolescence, would understand the nuances of such a historically freighted term is naive. Palin has demonstrated that she does not have the education or the intellect or the interest in learning for such parsing. The blame for her controversial utterance, I surmise, lies with her staff. She likely had no idea what she was saying or, if she did, would not care. When has she ever cared about anything but herself. Her overweening self-reverence has become so evident in her smarmy self-righteous recitations of shopworn cliches that, I suspect, it will continue to diminish her base.

  • Steve Klingaman

    Excellent detective work, though I fail to see why the virus metaphor is less descriptive than your “pumping heart.” The use of such a loaded term cannot be sheared from the anchors of its original connotations. They are always resident, and resonant. As they are appropriated here, they represent a more or less organic movement toward a symbolic sound bite that gains traction within the subculture. As such, it is really a second-degree metaphor, chosen for the resonant power of its components. Taken together, they inform a cult-like acceptance of a new level of meaning by the community of uses. It’s an opportunistic trick to try to win the debate while having no debate at all. It’s just, “That’s blood libel, that’s sick.” And the receiver goes, “Oh yeah, blood libel. How sick.” You this tendency sometimes in hard-core, anti-government, militia-type sites. There you find shorthand that sometimes originates in other languages as well, in references like “Molon Labe!” (Essentially, “to the last man,” as in, ” we will fight together to the last man”) Charming, no?

  • Gerry

    Seems this whole blood libel discourse is pablumatic

  • artistofideas

    Wikipedia and the “blood libel” tempest

    The fact that Wikipedia is NOT a dictionary (of meanings/usage) but rather an encyclopedia is not well understood.

    People who do not grasp that distinction may be less able to understand that Dershowitz is correct about *usage* of the phrase.

    The fact that the Wall Street Journal editors did not hesitate to “shout” (headline) “… Blood Libel” two days before the Palin hurricane perhaps suggests that some old journalistic eyes have seen the phrase flung about before without thinking it beyond the pale of public discourse.

    Back in the days before Wikipedia (and even Google), at a 1995 meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, John Seigenthaler asked Oliver Stone (re: his film JFK): “Is there any regret on your part for what I consider to be a blood libel on Lyndon Johnson for that accusation of murder?”

    I suspect the editors present understood the rhetorical implication of the usage without outrage.

    Ironic coda: A decade later Seigenthaler would be informed that he himself was implicated in the murder of JFK in Wikipedia. Ah, blood libel? Yes, but you can’t determine that from the Wikipedia article “Blood libel.” (For that you’d need the Wiktionary entry … which was added after the Palin tempest, of course.:)

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